Applying ecological models to communities of genetic elements: the case of neutral theory


A promising recent development in molecular biology involves viewing the genome as a mini-ecosystem, where genetic elements are compared to organisms and the surrounding cellular and genomic structures are regarded as the local environment. Here, we critically evaluate the prospects of ecological neutral theory (ENT), a popular model in ecology, as it applies at the genomic level. This assessment requires an overview of the controversy surrounding neutral models in community ecology. In particular, we discuss the limitations of using ENT both as an explanation of community dynamics and as a null hypothesis. We then analyse a case study in which ENT has been applied to genomic data. Our central finding is that genetic elements do not conform to the requirements of ENT once its assumptions and limitations are made explicit. We further compare this genome-level application of ENT to two other, more familiar approaches in genomics that rely on neutral mechanisms: Kimura’s molecular neutral theory and Lynch’s mutational-hazard model. Interestingly, this comparison reveals that there are two distinct concepts of neutrality associated with these models, which we dub ‘fitness neutrality’ and ‘competitive neutrality’. This distinction helps to clarify the various roles for neutral models in genomics, for example in explaining the evolution of genome size.

Molecular Ecology